A Virtual Season Ends with Plenty of Unfinished BusinessS

Looking back on the list of video games I finished in 2011, it's an embarrassingly thin roster. It may be my least productive year ever, in terms of what I finished, what I was expected to play, and what I spent most of my time doing. It's not a resume that really speaks of a professional video game writer.

Sports video games don't come in under the "finished" category because they aren't narratives—though I guess you could count Fight Night Champion as such. Its "Champion Mode," took you through the life of ficitious boxer André Bishop, and many of the bouts unfold like traditional boss battles.

Finished? Let's see: Bulletstorm. L.A. Noire. DC Universe Online. Sonic Generations. Super Mario 3D Land. Basically, the games I reviewed, plus L.A. Noire.

Started but unfinished? Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bionic Commando: Rearmed 2; Killzone 3, Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars; Deus Ex: Human Revolution (barely); Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (although, really, who plays that for the campaign?).

Not a minute of Batman: Arkham City. Nor Uncharted 3, Resistance 3, Dead Island, Bastion, Homefront or Saints Row The Third—and I have a copy of that, still in its shrinkwrap, on my coffee table.

What the hell did I play? Well, a lot of sports. A lot. It's funny that in a year in which I suggested we're starting to see the point of diminishing returns with simulation sports games in this console generation, I probably played them more than ever.

In 2011, I took my pitcher through two minor league seasons and a rookie-of-the-year performance, and that is a hell of a lot of games in MLB The Show, even when you're pitching every fifth day. I won a "Tiger Slam" in the new career mode of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters, becoming the reigning champion of all four major tournaments (and then some), just not in the same season.

I quarterbacked Tennessee to two straight SEC title game appearances in NCAA Football 12's revamped "Road to Glory," re-created and once again led the University of Denver (which last fielded a football team in 1960) to consecutive national championships. And that's not counting the numerous one-off grudge matches I played—N.C. State destroying Maryland and North Carolina, and blitzing Russell Wilson and Wisconsin into Lake Mendota. I played a ton of Madden, losing a Super Bowl in one season, winning it in another, and winning silly online games such as Battle of the Backup Quarterbacks with Billy Volek against Caleb Hanie—before Hanie became a starter and made Bears fans a danger to themselves and others.

But in worlds saved, aliens killed, bad guys defeated, treasures found and truth and justice defended, I came up woefully short. And it's not because my role as the site's sports columnist takes me away from other things I could or should play. It's because, at heart, I am a sports video gamer, and there are reasons that demographic has, in the past decade, become more isolated from those who spend as much, maybe even less, on games in a year, yet seem to enjoy a broader variety of them more.

• A Lack of Crossover: It's a big aesthetic argument, but I think everyone can agree that the major genres of video gaming have some compelling overlap with their peers—except for sports. Science fiction, comic books, and movie licensing also help stir this melting pot. But on the face of it, a real-time strategy game has, in interface, story and presentation, plenty in common with a role-playing game. A role-playing game has plenty in common with action-adventure tales (Red Dead Redemption was, to my mind, the RPG of 2010; you just played a single pre-rolled character). An action-adventure tale has a lot in common with a shooter.

Sports fans don't benefit from the kind of cross-pollination that drives other video game genres.

In sports video games, the ligatures are not as strong, if they are even there, to any other genres except, maybe, racing and even slighter still with fighting games. Career modes contain role-playing game elements, but none of the core structure of main story quests and side quests and quest givers. There's also no real narrative conclusion to your exploits, with the exception—very loosely speaking—of something like NCAA Football's "Road to Glory," which is capped at four years and ostensibly has a Heisman Trophy or National Championship as its goal.

In other words, there's not much of the cross-pollination that comes from "If you liked this, you should try this." If you liked Bioshock for example, you might also enjoy Resistance and Fallout. Although all three are totally different things, they are all set in alternate realities whose style is very evocative of past times in Western cultural history. And if you liked the deep experience of a role-playing game like Fallout 3 or New Vegas with its anachronistic technology, why not go poke around in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, set in a more orthodox future? If Dragon Age II disappointed you (and it did for many), maybe Skyrim can scratch that itch. But if Madden NFL 12 disappointed you (and it did for many), your alternative is waiting for Madden NFL 13.

In sports, not only are there loose, if not nonexistent, ties to other gaming genres, there are few ties even to other games. As I've noted, this sector has shrunk considerably, to the point there is effectively only one game per sport. Did you like NBA 2K12? Well ... maybe you'll like ... NBA Jam? Enjoy Madden?. OK, how about ... NFL Blitz? The lack of options only increases the sports gamer's isolation, not only from the rest of mainstream gaming but, frankly, from the remainder of the sports gaming sector.

• Cost commitment: Not only are hardcore sports video gamers passionate about their favorite sport, they're interested in others, too. Every spring I am a baseball fan. Every fall I am a college football fan. I'm bad at it, but basketball is such a passionate, action-packed theatrical production, I can't help but get caught up in its stories. If I decided those three were my must-have games, that's an outlay of $180 every year.

While military shooters (and Assassin's Creed ) are now annualized, there still is, comparatively, less of an urgency to buy the latest edition of them than there is in a sports video game, which derives its relevance from rosters, uniforms and schedules accurate to the current year. Call of Duty: Black Ops is still an extremely popular game, by Xbox Live metrics. So is Modern Warfare 2. So is Halo 3, released in 2007. If you haven't played it yet, you can romp through Renaissance Italy in Assassin's Creed II tomorrow and it'll feel fresh. But play NCAA Basketball 10—the last edition of a discontinued series, even—and you'll definitely feel like you're playing ancient history.

A video gamer who's a fan of three sports is looking at a $180 outlay every year.

I returned to console video gaming for one reason: sports. I pawned my Genesis in 1997 and did not pick up a console controller until 2003. Really. I missed out on, basically, everything between the Genesis and the PS2. I was heavily invested in my newspaper career, not making a lot of money, not having a lot of time, and then I went to graduate school.

But eight years ago yesterday—and Brian Crecente himself remembers this, because we were working together on the night shift at the Rocky Mountain News at the time—I drove 30 minutes and back to a Best Buy in Golden, Colo., for in-store pickup of an Xbox, and NCAA Football 2004. It took forever to get the goddamn thing. Our colleague Hector never took dinners that long, even when he was walking across the street for ceviche. Brian covered for me. "You're gonna love it," he said, "you connect that to the Internet, it will give your football game the exact weather that's happening on the day you are playing." I miss the days when that was a profound new feature.

I then bought Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic—largely by mistake, but I loved it and I really wish it would show up on the Xbox Classics marketplace today. And from that I got Jedi Academy, and then LucasArts' Gladius. The following spring I went to Minnesota to write a news feature about Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets, and picked up NBA Ballers. I had a great time with it, but wanted something a little more mature. I grabbed Hitman: Contracts, reaching back later for Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and that took me into Max Payne and, hell, even Driv3r. And then I discovered Grand Theft Auto.

It's ironic that, as someone who bought a games console specifically to play sports video games, it gave me maybe my most diverse year of video gaming. Yet today, when I am paid to play video games of all types, I've retreated further into a single genre.

It's also a little unfortunate.

A Virtual Season Ends with Plenty of Unfinished Business
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.